Wikileaks takes on the system

SUBHEAD: Wikileaks - The new standard in global whistleblowing has arrived.

Compiled by Brad Parsons on 21 March 2010 in Island Breath - 


Image above: The most famous of all whisleblowers, Daniel Ellsberg, who released the "Pentagon Papers" has a press conference outside Los Angeles Federal Courthouse in 1973. From (  

Recently released documents by
15. Mar. 2010: U.S. Intelligence planned to destroy WikiLeaks, 18 Mar 2008
This document is a classifed (SECRET/NOFORN) 32 page U.S. counterintelligence investigation into WikiLeaks.
24. Feb. 2010: takedown: Microsoft Global Criminal Compliance Handbook, 24 Feb 2010 is a venerable New York based anti-secrecy site that has been publishing since 1999. On Feb 24, 2010, the site was forcably taken down following its publication Microsoft's "Global Criminal Compliance Handbook", a confidential 22 page booklet designed for police and intelligence services. The guide provides a "menu" of information Microsoft collects on the users of its online services.
17. Mar. 2010: Update to over 40 billion euro in 28167 claims made aganst the Kaupthing Bank, 3 Mar 2010
This document contains an update to a list of 28167 claims, totaling over 40 billion euro, lodged against the failed Icelandic bank Kaupthing Bank hf. The document is significant because it reveals billions in cash, bonds and other property held with Kaupthing by a vast number of investors and asset hiders, including Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley, Exista, Barclays, Commerzbank AG, etc.
26. Feb. 2010: Icelandic Icesave offer to UK-NL, 25 Feb 2010
Confidential Feb 25 offer (conveyed around 10AM, GMT) from the Icelandic Icesave negotiation team to their British and Dutch counterparts. Iceland agreed to cover all monies associated with the UK-NL Icesave payouts, but forcefully objects to a 2.75% "profiteering" fee demanded by UK-NL over and above base interest rates.
26. Feb. 2010: Final UK-NL offer to the government of Iceland, 19 Feb 2010
Confidential offer from the UK, Dutch Icesave negotiation teams to their Icelandic counterparts. Iceland is to cover all monies associated with the UK/NL Icesave payouts, all currency and recovery risks, base interest as well as an effective 2.75% additional fee.
18. Feb 2010: Classified cable from US Embassy Reykjavik on Icesave dated 13 Jan 2010
This document, released by WikiLeaks on February 18th 2010 at 19:00 UTC, describes meetings between embassy chief Sam Watson (CDA) and members of the Icelandic government together with British Ambassador Ian Whiting.
Video above: A documentary about the activities of Wikileaks on the Culture Show in Britain. From (  

Message from Wikileaks:
We have received hundreds of thousands of pages from corrupt banks, the US detainee system, the Iraq war, China, the UN and many others that we do not currently have the resources to release to a world audience. You can change that and by doing so, change the world. Even $10 will pay to put one of these reports into another ten thousand hands and $1000, a million.

We have raised just over $360,000 for this year (our yearly budget is around $600,000.).

The Sunshine Press (WikiLeaks) is an non-profit organization funded by human rights campaigners, investigative journalists, technologists and the general public.

List of some WikiLeaks supporters:

* Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press (RCFP)
* The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE)
* The Associated Press - world wide news agency, based in New York
* Citizen Media Law Project - Harvard university
* The E.W Scripps Company - newspapers, TV, cable TV etc.
* Gannett Co. Inc - the largest publisher of newspapers in the USA, including USA Today
* The Hearst Corporation - media conglomerate which publishes the San Francisco Chronicle
* The Los Angeles Times
* National Newspaper Association (NNA) * Newspaper Association of America (NAA)
* The Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA)
* The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ)
* Public Citizen - founded by Ralph Nader together with the California First Amendment Coalition
* The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)
* The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
* The Project on Government Oversight (POGO)
* Jordan McCorkle, the University of Texas .

Interview with David Orr

SUBHEAD: Energy, climate change, the Precautionary Principle, Transition and whether or not we are beyond talk of ’solutions’. Image above: David Orr in the lobby of a London hotel lit with chandeliers. From the original article. By Rob Hopkins on 17 March 2010 in Transition Culture - PART ONE (

David Orr was in the UK recently, and the two of us were part of a panel at an event organised by the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment. After the event, we retired to the bar of a rather grand London hotel, and chatted for an hour about energy, climate change, the Precautionary Principle, Transition and whether or not we are beyond talk of ’solutions’.

So, how would you introduce yourself?

I’m David Orr. I teach at Oberlin College in Ohio and I also work as Senior Advisor to the President of the college on environmental issues generally, but specifically on the redevelopment of the town and the college to carbon neutrality, a 20,000 acre green belt and the revitalised downtown corridor.

You’ve just published a book, Down to the Wire: confronting climate collapse. Tell us about it.

Down to the Wire is an answer, in a way, to say that the issue of climate change as I read the signs, has gone well past the point of being an economic and technical issue. Although it is certainly those things, it’s now an issue of governance and of ethics. When bad times hit and the big storms and droughts happen, people aren’t going to call 1-800 Wallmart, you’re going to call 911 and hope that somebody picks up the phone - and that’s government.

The markets aren’t going to save us. A lot of this talk about reforming markets is, I think, misplaced… to the degree that we only think of civil society as a market economy, and government, well we don’t do government. So it’s written partly as an antidote to the view that governance doesn’t matter. Governance matters hugely. In the book there are sections that describe what governments can do, and have been doing to us; they can wage illegal wars, bankrupt the country, they can get their own services that they provide, they can beef up military and security services. No matter where you are in London your face is always on camera, that’s government surveillance, so governments are important in this thing.

The second thing in the book – and this is a real conundrum which we faced in the President’s Climate Action Plan which we did for the Obama Administration – what do you tell the public? It’s the thing I don’t have an answer for. When I give talks about this I always mention Jack Nicholson in ‘A Few Good Men’, and that great line he has when he says “you can’t handle the truth”. TS Elliot once said that human beings can’t bear too much reality. But on the other side, there’s Winston Churchill, with bombs falling all over London, he’s not on the BBC saying “this is a great time for urban renewal, we can beat the Nazis at a profit”, it was blood, toil, tears and sweat. So how do you message this?

In the room today it was said by several people that you have to put a positive spin on this. Well, yes and no. I think you have to be truthful about what’s at stake and if I read the signs correctly, things are moving much faster, will be much bigger and will be much longer lived than we had thought. On the other hand you can’t drive people to despair, you’ve got to give people something to do which is why the Transition Movement is such a brilliant movement because with Peak Oil you can honestly say, look … this is where we’re headed, there’s a whole convergence of things, it isn’t just oil, it’s a whole convergence of the world coming undone. So at the end of the book I discuss the Oberlin project.

The third reason for the book is that although the journal I helped to start is called ‘Solutions’, I didn’t agree with that title, because in a real sense the climate issue, if the science is correct, has gone past the point of solutions as we conventionally understand that word, and what we’re hoping for now in this race against time and the remorseless working of big numbers, is to contain the worst of what could happen and hope that in a thousand, maybe two thousand years time, there’s still enough bio-physical stability to support something called a civilization. It isn’t solvable like you’d fix a broken car. The science says if we stop emitting carbon today, we’ve got at least a thousand years of sea level rise and warming temperatures. That’s the start of the book.

The book is my 35,000 word meditation on what it means to live in this era, because we’re effectively evicting ourselves from the only paradise we’ve ever known. Geologists call it the Holocene, but in that era, that interlude, the climate fluctuates a bit but never terribly badly. CO2 didn’t go above 280 – 290ppm, and you can probably extend that back about 1 million – 1.4 million years, and once you get beyond the ice core records you go to the paleo record and there’s another 600,000 years of data that say in that interlude, as humans were becoming whatever it was we’d become, we lived in this period of stability. So now, in Biblical terms, we’re evicting ourselves from this Garden of Eden called the Holocene.

At 15,000 feet for me is the President’s Climate Action Plan, we put about $1.2 million into it, we brought in around 250 people to work on all different parts of it, a who’s who of the climate group. The Oberlin Project, which is my version of Transition Town, is ground level. That’s grounding what we’re talking about. How do we build carbon neutrality with prosperity at a local level? What does that mean? So these three levels are what I do.

Back to the book a minute, I think we have to go deeper than the debate so far. So far, on our side of this, its a debate about Cap-and-Trade or taxation, parts per million, parts per billion, and we get lost in this thicket and you can see the public face glaze over. I think we have to reckon with harder things, so there’s a part of the book that goes into the basis for hope as opposed to despair and optimism. Hope, as I say in the book, is “a verb with its sleeves rolled up”. In contrast to despair or optimism, which require you to do nothing, hope requires that you act. The Transition movement is the ultimate act of hopefulness, it’s “let’s start where we are”. So your sleeves are rolled up, you’re looking at how you get the pieces rearranged, of this thing called Totnes or Transition Town wherever.

But we also have to develop something, and I think it’s easier in Europe and Britain, what the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno called “the Tragic Sense of Life” – it’s the awareness that humans are a badly flawed species. We’re basically an upright chimpanzee with a big brain! Kurt Vonnegut says in one of his novels that next time around, whoever organizes evolution we’ll have no brain!

The tragic sense of life says that things don’t always work well. That’s easier to grasp in a place like England or Europe where you get land littered with ruins that are testimony to our fallibility. We just don’t always get it right. John Gray is a conservative political philosopher who understands climate and environment and sometimes the tragic sense of life just tempers things. It isn’t long-faced and gloomy but it does mean that you have to reckon with something deeper than this fluffy thought up here.

My complaint about the sustainability and climate dialogue up to this point is that it operates at the superficial level, it’s like the veneer on this little table. Until we can get deeper, we’re probably not going to make it. We have to understand what we are as a species. This is why the work of people like Robert Wright who are delving into our evolutionary past, a lot of neuro-science is so important, because it is giving us a rather more accurate picture of who we are and it isn’t all bad!

Yes, humans can do some nasty things, but we also have a bent for compassion, and community building. At the end of the day, what I’m doing in Oberlin and what you’re doing in the Transition movement depends a lot on people’s sense of generosity which I think is there in abundance, but that’s not good for the global economy of course, because if people were charitable, they’d be lousy consumers. If people had to do for themselves as competent individuals and neighbors, there’s a whole lot that they wouldn’t be buying at the shopping mall.

So the last couple of chapters offer a deeper perspective, and a tragic perspective. I think that the recognition of tragedy has the honest recognition of what we are, who we are, and what we can be, but aren’t yet. I think this opens us to genuine nobility, not just affluence, not just power, not just domination of the world, but genuine nobility. I think that’s that this movement is about. I think the Transition movement is a hinge movement in this larger ecological Enlightenment which I believe is underway. Central to it is the fact that we’re related. It’s a systems view of everything, and a long-term view that says we have to think in terms of ten thousand year interludes and that, to me, is really cool. That is the human species starting to stretch into a fuller stature. We’re not there yet, but that, to me, is what is really powerful about this movement.

If I talk like this to a public audience, nobody understands it. If I talk about food issues, plumbing, housing, economics and jobs, people get that, and sooner or later they’ll get the larger agenda behind it…

How do you see things in terms of Peak Oil and the different scenarios that Richard Heinberg has set out of what that looks like in practice? Are you a Collapse person, or Powerdown person, or a Building Lifeboats person? How do you see that playing out? Which one should we be preparing for?

Richard is a friend and I’m a Post Carbon Institute Fellow like him. The book ends with a rational debate; at one end you’ve got Amory Lovins, who basically says there’s no such thing as Peak Oil, that if we apply ourselves we could be much more efficient and just sip energy and then there’s no real crisis. Even if that were true, in the best of all possible worlds you have to ask, is that a reasonable prediction of what we’re going to do? The answer therefore for me is that the jury is still out, the jury members are coming back into the courtroom one by one and it doesn’t look promising, you just don’t see vindication on their faces, to follow that metaphor. If you hold a gun to my head and say make a choice, I think I’m a Powerdown person.

I think the place I want to spend my energy is trying to figure out how we get off this energy binge we’ve been on, I think Richard is right that if you sit back far enough it’s like this huge spike which will collapse. I think that’s the challenge of our time, to figure out how to maintain prosperity while using a whole lot less energy.

But then look around this space, those lights are all powered by fossil fuel energy coming from some place, those chandeliers (see picture at the start of this piece) have a footprint, there’s no low energy lightbulbs in them, so the question is we have this huge infrastructure to maintain, and it’s really hard to see a graceful way to power that down. On the other side of the debate, you’ve got James Lovelock saying at the end of the century there will be 2 billion people left on the planet, where did the other 4 or 5 billion go? You’re talking about a massive dieback. Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal at Cambridge, gives a fifty-fifty chance to have a civilization intact by 2100, that’s 90 years away and then it all comes undone.

So, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I am. Richard Heinberg really helped frame the debate well. It’s clear that we’re running out of cheap fossil fuels. What’s left is deeper down, further out and in places like the Middle East where people don’t like us. We’ve built an incredibly fragile system. This was more in the public mind back in the Seventies. I was part of an effort, working with Jimmy Carter’s Transition Team in 1976. We delivered him a paper on energy and US resilience and the thing that’s so disturbing is that it still reads well forty years later. Which means not much has happened and the human population has expanded, every one of which has a footprint.

What do you think we can learn from that? It seems that in that period in the Seventies between the two oil shocks, lots of stuff flowered like research into permaculture, but it seems that when we got to the Eighties we made a collective decision to party for the next thirty years. Were we in the position at the end of the seventies to create a low carbon society if we chose to?

I think so. At the end of the Seventies, when Jimmy Carter left office, there was a report called the 'Global 2000 Report' and a lot of the data is now obsolete – it’s even worse now than we thought it was, and we weren’t talking about climate change in that era! I think that that era began what was potentially the most important dialogue ever. It was on remaking the human presence on the planet in a way which was philosophically realigned, the Enlightenment wasn’t bad, it just didn’t go far enough! It didn’t include Enlightenment about our place in the natural world, it just wasn’t enlightening enough!

The instinct for data and logic was right. We began to prove the concept, through the work of John Todd, that you can clean wastewater and grow food sustainably and so on. Jane Jacobs was writing about sustainable cities without ever using the word. I think the intellectual capital and some of the experimental capital was incredibly valuable. By the end of the Eighties we had Wes Jackson’s work and Amory Lovins was starting to hit his stride and we had the capacity to re think the standards and the metrics by which we judge our success. In the economic movement Richard Heinberg was still a pup at that stage, probably still at college or something, but Herman Daly and Hazel Henderson, they were writing, there were people thinking this out. Edward Goldsmith’s ‘Blueprint for Survival’ came out in 1972. We had a cause, and we had solutions that were starting to congeal.

It’s hard to say exactly what happened to it. In the States Ronald Reagan ran on this platform of ‘It’s Morning in America Again’ and as I say in the book its now twilight, the due bill is sitting on the desk. It was certain that big business got realigned and began to push the other way. That goes back to a memo that was written by a guy in the US Supreme Court, I forget his name, but he wrote a letter to the US Chamber of Commerce basically calling for a counter attack on the environmental movement. If you use the attorney’s rule of thumb, follow the money… if you want to find out why something happened, just trace the money back. I think all that stuff was threatening to agri-business, to Big Oil, to car manufacturers, to a whole lot of people.

The one thing that was missing in that dialogue in the Seventies and Eighties was that nobody was really talking about strategy. How do we convey this as a message? We made the assumption, at least I sure did, that all people needed were the facts, data and logic. That meant more articles, more books, and then pretty soon they’ll see what’s at stake. I think we missed the whole issue of how you motivate people and how you actually move the dialogue. I don’t know that even if we had tried to do that, I don’t know that we could have done. I know that I went to meetings in the Seventies and Eighties, talking about the politics of these things and I don’t think people got how important the political dimension was, even at the local scale, the national or global scale, I don’t think people were understanding it.

So, I think those years were potentially very valuable. In the meantime, John Todd’s work has got better, Wes Jackson’s work has morphed into natural systems agriculture, permaculture has become a technique for landscape management, water conservation, food production and aesthetics and real estate values, there’s been a lot of progress, it’s not like we’ve been sitting still.

We’ve come to a point now where some people, like Stewart Brand, are arguing that we’ve got our backs to the wall and maybe we have to be ready to do things that otherwise we’d prefer not to do. I’m not a happy camper with that stuff. I think that’s a way to try to prop up the Western project to dominate nature and with ever more heroic technology, and it will fail ever more catastrophically and spectacularly, to the point where you’re trying to geo engineer the planet, and well who the hell knows enough to do that?! How will you ever adjudicate the differences, if you’re going to increase rainfall there, decrease rainfall someplace else, tell me how you adjudicate those decisions, let alone know what you’re actually doing. … we don’t have the ecological know-how.

Wes Jackson pulled together a conference once on ‘ignorance-based world view’ (laughs), he and Wendell Berry and a bunch of us, and for three or four days we sat around and mulled over what it means to recognise that in fact we are inevitably more ignorant than we are smart … so what that means is, not that you stop science, but that you curtail large scale risky projects… call it the Precautionary Principle, which Stewart Brand dismisses, or call it what you will, the long of it is just prudence, there are some places angels fear to tread because you don’t go there, because you really don’t know what you what you’re causing. As Wendell Berry once put it “you don’t know what you’re doing because you don’t know what you’re undoing”…

Rob Hopkins Interview with David Orron - PART TWO (

How do you see the relationship between sustainability and resilience as concepts? Is resilience part of sustainability? Is sustainability part of resilience?

I guess for me sustainability is kind of a boring word but we’re stuck with it. But I tend to like resilience because it implies an active disposition to be able to withstand, it’s more of an engineering and mathematical term, but to be able to withstand disturbances. Some parameters change, some factors shift, and the system is able to adjust. There’s enough slack in the system that it works. So for me, at a minimum, sustainability implies resilience. In any definition of sustainability the system has got to be resilient to disturbances.

Are there any dangers inherent within the concept of relocalization?

With my students, we talk about all these gee-whiz environmental solutions and so forth, I want to get them to think about the dark side of what can happen, because I think the ‘happy talk’ view of humans is quite dangerous. I think that there are clearly ways in which Transition Towns and the local sustainability movement could become parochial and in my part of the world we have a history which shows that small towns can be vicious, mean places. In the 1880s until recently, lynchings we not uncommon.

The trick I think with Transition movement in this sense, is going to be to build in the mechanisms whereby people become more tolerant and open, although more constrained for fuels, electricity and so forth, but that we don’t create violence or parochialism, no matter how sustainable or otherwise. So I think the network idea was brilliant, to bring people in and create a movement. To have towns networked across the world that are part of this larger cosmopolitan dialogue of human presence in the world, and recognizing that a Transition initiative is going to be different in Southern India, and in Indiana, and in Totnes, Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, Japan and China. But the basic questions are all going to be the same. How do we build, within the parameters of nature, and do it fairly, decently, sustainably, resiliently, openly, and with compassion toward everybody? So intolerance has to be bred out of everyone!

As this dialogue goes forward I would love to help foster the mechanisms whereby Transition Towns stay open and cosmopolitan and not parochial. The enemy here is fundamentalism, and the problem is you can have technological fundamentalist, economic growth fundamentalist, you can be a New York City cosmopolitan fundamentalist! It wears lots of different faces! That’s a great question though.

What is inner resilience? Why are some people more resilient than others? What does it look like if a community encounters shock – the population doesn’t just all go crazy and run round looting and stabbing each other, how does one help build that sense of compassion and flexibility and adaptability?

I think regarding the resilience you’re looking at in the face of catastrophe, I think we know three things that are important: One is that catastrophes are coming. We don’t know the dates yet but we do know that the system is coming under increasing stress. Reserve stocks are way down, there’s a big drought in the American Midwest, and those stocks drop to below zero and there’s no slack in the system, so it’s going to be hand to mouth.

Secondly, civilization is only nine meals away from anarchy. We know that no matter how good the intention is, however good people are, if they’re hungry, saints will turn into a mob. Get them hungry enough, turn the water off and the electricity off and you’ll cause panic and social psychology and biology take over.

Thirdly, I think it means that Transition Towns need food policy instead of relying on large-scale storage. I think networks of people, not just a town, let’s say in the Totnes area, between Devon and Cornwall, there needs to be a discussion about how go begin to stockpile food for bad years, or at least begin to talk about this stuff. Because if we’re reliant on large-scale systems to feed us, I think we’re kidding ourselves.

This debate was more alive in the Seventies than it is today, in terms of awareness of fragility and vulnerability, what Amory Lovins called ‘brittleness’ in systems. It doesn’t take really severe shocks to crack the system open. Roberto Vacca, an Italian systems theorist, wrote a book in the Seventies called 'The Coming Dark Age', and other authors wrote along the same lines during that period of rising awareness in the Seventies, it was part of the dialogue, that this could all come undone. There was a lot of thinking about how one event could cause it to unravel, a terrorist event, or two a Katrina-scale event…

I was on a panel once, sponsored by the CIA to think like terrorists. My team had to think like terrorists. The second team had to try and figure out what we came up with and what to do about it, and the third team and the third team (inaudible) and the three teams never talked. My team had to come up with the most heinous possibilities for terrorism, and we did, and they haven’t happened yet, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t. One plane loaded with high explosives could shut down the United States. The results of that panel were never published, but the fact is we’re vulnerable.

Naomi Klein’s book ‘The Shock Doctrine’, is one of the best books around, because what she did was to put her finger on something, there are some people whose interest it is to have shocking developments, you see a weak government, you take it over, you provide services to it, such as these now highly vulnerable, highly dependent people in New Orleans. She offers an important reality check. It’d be good to have her brought into this discussion because she brings a new perspective to what we perceive as disaster. I effectively dodged your whole question didn’t I?! But I talked learnedly! (laughs).

Rob Hopkins Interview with David Orron - PART THREE (

As somebody who has lived a long time immersed in climate data and environmental information and has lived with your nose up against the reality of that for a long time, how do you cope with that? What are your coping mechanisms? Knowing what you know, how does it affect how you live your life?

There is something to TS Elliot’s statement that humankind cannot bear too much reality. Not totally, but clearly if you come down with cancer or heart disease you want the truth. Ecological truths are harder for us to absorb and the pain of the world, not many of us can face this. A Canadian wildlife guy, John Livingstone, wrote some brilliant stuff, he really felt nature, and when he saw what was happening, extinctions and so forth, he wrote these outraged, impassioned columns, but it always amazes me that more people aren’t angry about this.

Maybe we’ve come into an era where nothing makes us angry other than when our favorite TV show is taken off, or the utility flips the lights out, maybe we’re an ‘opposed-to-anger’ society, but we’re discovering that with 7 billion people on the planet, maybe we’re a new species, but that’s not your question…

I’ve got a nice life. Today I was hanging out talking to the Prince’s Foundation, talking to smart intelligent people, yesterday the same, now I’m hanging out with you who I’ve wanted to meet for a long time, all of us doing good things, I’m really enjoying what I’m doing on the Oberlin Project, you’re really enjoying what you’re doing with Transition Towns….we get to go visit places… we have nice lives. It makes it difficult for us to empathize and to feel pain. In some ways we’re autistic to the future that we’ve created as a species – we can’t feel it very well or very consistently…

We were working on a project in New Orleans with Brad Pitt a couple of years ago, in the 9th Ward, he put a bunch of money up for these houses. It’s a large scale project that is actually moving. Anyway, I was with a friend of mine, in a bar in New Orleans, and I said “you look awful, you OK?’ He said he was really depressed. This was about the time when some of the hardcore data came out about the melting of the cryosphere, sea level rise. You look at that and you go “my God, this all could end, everything we care about as humans”.

You know Rob, this is so hard to think about. The most profound meditation I’ve ever read on extinction was how do we think about the silence in the Universe that we’re going to create when we’re no longer around? When you run the film fast forward and we go extinct, or something changes, we don’t have a date, but there isn’t much of a future for humankind. The most powerful meditation on this that I have ever read is from Jonathan Schells’ book ‘The Fate of the Earth’ which came out over 3 decades ago.

Here’s where that leads me. We don’t know and we cannot know yet, whether we’re up to survival or not. I’m persuaded that George Monbiot is probably right, that we live better than people have ever lived, and we live better than people will ever live. I don’t see a way round that.

I listen to all the people who promote ‘happy talk’, arguing that all we need is to invent new gizmos and deploy them and all will be well, but I think that what ails us is deeper than that. It is a kind of autism: we can’t feel what we’re doing to the world. We see the numbers over here of how many species have gone extinct but we don’t feel it.

At the recent launch of the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World report, there was a guy there with these amazing photographs of albatross babies dead on the beach with their innards stripped open. What their mothers had been feeding them was the flotsam and electronic stuff and plastic that is floating about in that garbage belt in the Pacific and these birds have eaten it and are dying of starvation. It’s an amazing show. What he’s trying to do is raise awareness through the medium of photography, and to end our autism. We don’t know yet if that’s curable. I believe it is, but your question was how do I handle this?

My life is good, the situation here is bad. I’m part of a species that’s severely flawed through all sorts of things that we have created. I’ve got four grand kids. I enjoy what I’m doing. I would do it without pay. It’s the issue of our entire existence, whether humans can make themselves the positive presence on planet earth instead of a planetary blight. The jury’s out. We don’t know, but this is the time. What do you see is the role of the arts in what we need to do?

This is kind of an almost late-life conversion. We have a great arts program at Oberlin and the number 2, 3 or 4 ranked arts museum in US higher education. As I’ve see this debate unfold I think there are three factors in this that I see as galvanizing. First is that for a long time we thought that science would save us, good data, logic and so on. That’s important, but it doesn’t move people. On the other side there’s the arts. Cinematography, photography, the classic arts, painting, poetry, music, they do move us, people read, they go to the movies, listen to symphonies, and books for me are terribly powerful things, but that’s the other side of the brain.

The third thing is the experiential level. That is beyond the capacity either of scientists to explain and probably beyond the arts to portray, that’s the experiential level. Watching a sunset, walking in the woods, fishing in the creek, that feeling of oneness with this all. It’s a friendly place. One of my favorite philosophers is Mary Midgley at Newcastle, I hope she’s still alive, I never met her but I love her books. She said we are all not as strangers in this place, we fit here, we belong here. That’s a powerful insight.

But how do you get that for young people today who watch who are plugged in to a screen or have earphones on for eight hours a day? Those three things have to be combined, recombined, in a way that creates probably a different human being. Science needs to continue, the arts need to engage that so it’s a common dialogue, experience needs to reinforce both of those… when you walk in the woods you need to see there’s something’s different here, there’s pain there in terms of species disappearing… I think if you aren’t connected with the natural world, if you don’t hike enough and walk the streams, have some sene of kinship with it all then science isn’t going to move you very much. It’s never going to really touch us.

Finally, have you seen the film 'Avatar' and what do you think about it? It seems to have kicked off some fascinating debate among various writers in the green movement.

Firstly, I think it is important to stand back and notice how much high-tech stuff it takes to entertain us nowadays. There’s this constant escalation of the gee-whiz factor. We get our highs now increasingly with electronic stimuli of various sorts. I thought the movie was OK. It was a fairly juvenile good versus evil story. In that sense it’s really a shallow story.

It didn’t portray nature I think in a way that would move more than a fraction of the audience to do any different than what they are already doing. It’s a little too goody-two-shoes in the way it portrays nature and these creatures that are so attuned. No human has ever been that close to nature, and there’s some pretty bad stuff that went on in tribal societies.

'Avatar', on balance, I’d give a C. I am really skeptical about whether movies can move us much, and it’s sort of a heretical notion, I think a summer working on a farm can move somebody, I think a serious permaculture project can move somebody, I think a relationship with an animal, or animals, for people who are highly disturbed, they care and find they have an affection for it…

Building a cob wall?

Yes… what happens in a movie is strictly about how certain electrons hit the brain, but imagine sitting in a jam session with a bunch of other musicians around a campfire making music, on a warm summers night, the moon and the stars are in the sky, there’s a crowd milling round, the sight and smells of food cooking and fire burning. The whole envelopment of the senses moves us whereas a movie is really not that sensuous. Just the eyeballs and whatever stimuli that kicks up.

What moves us is what engages our five senses and a couple of others that we maybe have but don’t know about. That’s what causes us to move. I think I am the person I am because I spent a lot of time out in the woods and in the fields… that oneness with nature is an infinite concept, but its hard to feel in a movie theater, sitting in a black room, eating popcorn with artificial butter on, having driven there for an hour through freeways and the hellhole of this modern urban sprawl and parked in an asphalt parking lot to be shown that nature on another planet is really nice!

I guess I am jaundiced. I don’t find that movies move me. They can make you think about stuff, films like 'Dead Man Walking', which really made me think about the death penalty from two different sides, that movie made me think about something, rather than just scratching my head.

'Avatar' may open the concept that perhaps smart creatures can live in harmony with nature, but it was just too sweetsy-cutsey, you know, sitting around in that big tree, flying on birds, it was just too sweetsy-cutesy to be plausible, and when we get down to it, nature can be brutal and nasty, there were some nasty creatures but… a C, or maybe a C minus.


Vanishing Face of Gaia

SUBHEAD: The fashionable rhetoric about sustainable development just shows that we weave the sound of the alarm clock into our dreams.

By Alexander Zaitchik on 17 March 2010 in Adbusters -

Image above: Photo of James Lovelock from the Edenburgh Festival (

If people know anything about the British scientist James Lovelock, it is his theory of a living Earth, known as Gaia. Lovelock began formulating this revolutionary vision in the late 1960s while working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. It was there, not far from the ground zero of West Coast counterculture, that he began to wonder: Might the Earth possess a sophisticated planetary intelligence, one that regulates the countless interactions of plants, animals, minerals, gases and the sun’s heat (all of the ingredients and products of ever-evolving life) in such a way as to maintain a climate homeostasis amenable to a lush, living planet? In short, does Mother Earth like life, and does she do her best to make us comfortable?

Once regarded as a quasi-mystical expression of longing more than a science-based insight, Lovelock’s theory has overcome the skepticism of his peers. Over the course of four decades of research and experiment, Gaia has officially graduated from a hypothesis to a theory. It is now widely accepted that the biosphere’s elements are no passive collection of independent actors responding to conditions but together form a living web that actively creates and maintains those conditions, including temperature. Lovelock has been compared to Copernicus and Darwin for fathering and nurturing the Gaia paradigm.

In recent years, however, Lovelock has been more frequently compared to a trumpeter of doom. Over the course of three books and dozens of articles and interviews, Lovelock has emerged since the mid-2000s as the world’s leading climate pessimist and stoic. By his estimation it is not only too late for climate legislation as currently proposed; it is too late for any legislation, however radical. Cataclysmic climate change will hit in the coming century, he believes. Any efforts to pretend otherwise only delay the necessary work of preparing for the climate apocalypse.

“Most of the ‘green’ stuff is verging on a gigantic scam,” Lovelock told the New Scientist shortly before the release of his latest book, "The Vanishing Face of Gaia".
“Carbon trading, with its huge government subsidies, is just what finance and industry wanted. It’s not going to do a damn thing about climate change, but it’ll make a lot of money for a lot of people and postpone the moment of reckoning.”
Lovelock’s steep descent into morbidity – he would call it clarity – began with his controversial 2006 book, The Revenge of Gaia, in which the 90-year-old scientist put hope junkies on notice. That contrarian work sought to demolish the terms of the climate debate as childlike and based on wishful thinking. Angering his erstwhile environmentalist allies, it also mocked our response to the crisis at the personal, national and species level.

Lovelock’s dark certainty about looming climate collapse results from his viewing current climate data through the lens of Gaia Theory. This lens, he maintains, allows for a more comprehensive, intuitive and ultimately more accurately predictive approach. Much of his last book is devoted to explaining why attempts to accurately model climate change with cold computers is akin to the blind efforts of a 19th-century doctor trying to treat diabetes. He notes that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its many mainframes have successfully undershot all indicator trends so far. Most notably, sea-level rise has outpaced IPCC predictions at a rate of 2 to 1.

Of all the trends to watch, Lovelock maintains sea level rise is the most important. Given the complexity of the millions of interactions within the Gaia system, Lovelock argues it is best to ignore year-to-year temperature fluctuations and instead watch the oceans. The seas, he says, are the lone trustworthy indicator of the earth’s heat balance.
“Sea level rise is the best available measure of the heat absorbed by the earth because it comes from only two things. [These are] the melting of glaciers and the expansion of water as it warms. Sea level is the thermometer that indicates true global heating.”
Lovelock believes the oceans will expand and rise ever faster, fueled by the dreaded positive feedback loops now under way, which will soon become ferocious amplifiers of global heating. (He finds “warming” too soft a word for the process.) The most important of these feedback loops are the loss of reflective ice cover, replaced by heat absorbent dark water; the death of carbon-eating algae as oceans warm and acidify; and the release of vast stores of methane as the Siberian permafrost thaws.

These self-feeding cycles, already in motion, will explode in the coming decades, Lovelock maintains, leading to sudden and dramatic shifts in global climate. “The Earth’s history and simple climate models based on the notion of a live and responsive Earth suggest that sudden change and surprise are more likely than the smooth rising curve of temperature that modelers predict for the next 90 years,” he writes.

The end result of this surge of change will be a drastic reduction of Earth’s carrying capacity. And we need to start preparing now.

“There is no tipping point, just a slope that gets ever steeper,” writes Lovelock. “Because of the rapidity of the Earth’s change, we will need to respond more like the inhabitants of a city threatened by a flood. When they see the unstoppable rise of water, their only option is to escape to higher ground. We have to make our lifeboats seaworthy now [and] stop pretending there is any way back to that lush, comfortable and beautiful Earth we left behind sometime in the 20th century.”

Given this future, delusional politics is a waste of precious time. Indeed, Lovelock’s impatience with feel-good “Yes, we can” liberal environmentalism borders on contempt. He writes that fashionable rhetoric about sustainable development just shows that we “weave the sound of the alarm clock into our dreams.” In one of the book’s many memorable passages on the green politics of hope, Lovelock compares alternative energy to deathbed snake oil peddled by an alt-medicine quack.

“Just as we as individuals try alternative medicine,” writes Lovelock, “our governments have many offers from alternative businesses and their lobbies of sustainable ways to ‘save the planet,’ and from some green hospice there may come the anodyne of hope.”

Lovelock brightens up considerably once he gets past the mechanics of the coming die-off. He is cautiously hopeful that as many as several hundred million humans will survive the century and carve pockets of civilization into the coming hot state. Our current global civilization is about to end, but there is every reason to “take hope from the fact that our species is unusually tough and is unlikely to go extinct in the coming climate catastrophe.”

Here enters Lovelock the playful futurist. Those who survive will be responsible for maintaining a high-tech, low-impact, low-energy society advanced enough to keep the flame of progress alive but small and smart enough to carefully husband what arable land remains.

Lovelock guesses the rump human race will cluster around a few temperate islands in the far northern hemisphere, including his native UK. He believes that if emergency preparations are made in time – he compares the present moment to 1939 – and if the worst-case scenarios of geopolitical conflict are avoided – namely resource scrambles leading to global thermonuclear war – then something resembling a modern and even urban lifestyle could await the survivors.

There may even be food critics in this future, which need not resemble a Soylent Green scenario of cannibalism and state-rationed crackers. This future civilization will synthesize food from CO2, nitrogen, water and a few minerals. Simple amino acids and sugars, Lovelock cheerfully explains, can be used as feedstock for bulk animal and vegetable tissue created in chemical vats from biopsies. Yum!

A quarter century ago Carl Sagan issued a strange and compelling plea for nuclear disarmament. He urged the superpowers to abolish their thermonuclear arsenals for the sake of mankind’s future evolution and eventual colonization of the galaxy. Echoing Sagan, Lovelock believes it is our duty as an intelligent race, the only one in the cosmic neighborhood, to survive. Only by carrying the flame of civilization into the next century will we have a chance to evolve beyond our current tribal-carnivore brains, which are dominated by short-term thinking and thus responsible for our current predicament.

Whereas Sagan dreamed of alien contact, Lovelock’s promised land is more humble: an evolved species capable of living in balance with Gaia. In the meantime the Earth will grow and change as it always has. Life will continue, human life included, even though billions will suffer and die. Gaia, an aging planet, will roll into the new climate as best she can. In her wise generosity, she will even leave some hospitable land for us, the offending species, “to survive and to live in a way that gives evolution beyond us, into a wiser and more intelligent animal, a chance.”

Whether this distant outcome should be enough to sustain our spirits during whatever’s coming, no one can say. It is for each of us to decide.

To purchase the book see

Kauai shrimp waste dump

SUBHEAD: The smell was overwhelming, the feces and dead shrimp attracted sharks, the canals were depleted, and it killed every single fish in the area.

By Juan Wilson on 19 March 2010 for Island Breath -

Image above: Sign near entrance to Kawaiele wetland experiment managed by Hawaii DLNR. All photos by Juan Wilson 3/19/10  

 Rather than have an industrial shrimp farm that requires as much as 25 million gallons of noxious effluent flowing into the ocean in a day, why not expand the existing wetland sanctuary to handle a more natural way of breeding fish for the ocean's health and our own sustenance. A natural organic aquaculture would be a much better solution and return the Mana Plain back to the source of bird, plant and fish life that it once was.

As I have mentioned on this site before; the two greatest wetlands in the Hawaiian chain were both destroyed in the last century for money and power. One was Pearl Harbor - dredged out for the U.S. military. The other was the Mana Plain - filled in for industrial agriculture (and now the breeding ground for genetically modified crops).

Image above: Plants grow down into the brine wetland where fish are breeding.

The Kawaiele Sand Mine - Bird Sanctuary Project is only a few acres, but it demonstrates the beauty that was once adorned the western shores of Kauai. The Mana Plain had estuaries that teemed with fish and birds that allowed travel by canoe from Waimea past the town of Mana. Natural aquaculture is what we should be aspiring to. Restoring the wetlands and fishponds of the past would be a boon to the oceans. They would be breeding grounds for the reefs.

Image above: A Great Blue Heron hunts for fish in wetlands sanctuary.

he present strategy of industrial fish farming is destructive to local fisheries. Here is a quote from observations on shrimp farms on the Indian continent. See

"The fishermen from a poor fishing village near Chittagong wade out to their boat when it comes back with its catch. The catches, they told us, are very slim compared to 15 years ago when there were plenty of fish. They rapidly walk with the fish in bamboo baskets resting on their shoulders the several kilometers to their village in order to try to sell it while it is still fresh." "In the same place where the poor fishermen were unloading their meager catch, the landscape was surreal, like a scene from some alien landscape. Giant earth moving machines were tearing at the tidal flats, creating vast holes and mountains of discarded mud. A commercial shrimp farm was being constructed." "These shrimp farms create food for export (not the local population) and destroy the mangrove coastal barriers that help prevent typhoon and storm damage and flooding on the land. These farms are being created all along the coasts of south India and Bangladesh. As usual, short term profits far outweigh the welfare of the local populations or future generations."
Will military wastelands, genetically mutated grasslands and dead ocean reefs be our legacy on the Mana Plain? By the way, there is a rumor among people who know the harbors on Kauai that the PMRF is interested in dredging the Bird Sanctuary for a dock site of their own. For more about the effluent request by Sunrise Capitol, read on.

  Video above: Dan Barber - How I fell in love with a fish farm. From (

Shrimp farm to dump waste in ocean  By Coco Zickos on 19 March 2010 in Garden Island News -     (  
Image above: Sign near the entrance of the Sunrise Capital shrimp farm nest to the Kekaha Landfill. 
All photos by Juan Wilson 3/19/10 Proposing to discharge up to 30 million gallons of wastewater effluent and treated shrimp remains into the ocean on a daily basis, Sunrise Capital has filed for a Draft National Pollutant Discharge Elimination permit with the state Department of Health, according to an e-mail from the DOH’s communications office Thursday.

Originally owned and operated by Ceatech USA, the Kekaha shrimp farm was acquired by Sunrise Capital in June 2005 and is currently operating at minimal capacity, said an e-mail from officials at the DOH’s Clean Water Branch. While this has “resulted in no discharge from the property” since 2004 after the “farm became infected with a shrimp virus,” Sunrise Capital seeks to increase its operating capacity which will likely generate a maximum of 23 million gallons of biological waste each day, according to CWB officials.

Messages left for Sunrise Capital Wednesday and Thursday were not returned. “The ocean is not a dump,” said environmental activist Dr. Gordon LaBedz of Surfrider Kaua‘i. Non-coastal shrimp farms can and do exist utilizing alternative methods of waste treatment and disposal, he said Thursday.

Image above: Pump aerator in middle of active shrimp basin lined with neoprene.  

When asked if generating fuel from the waste could be a possibility, LaBedz said the amount of discharge would be insufficient to make it economically viable. “I’m not against the shrimp farm,” said community activist Bruce Pleas. However, when the farm was operating at full capacity from February 2000 to December 2003, the “disastrous effects” of the waste in the sea were monumental, he said. The smell was overwhelming, the feces and dead shrimp attracted sharks, the canals were depleted, and it killed every single fish in the area, he said. In addition, the dumping affected surf spots known as Kinikinis, Major’s Bay and Family Housing. The current can carry the waste which would allow it to “travel miles,” LaBedz said.
Image above: A 12" PVC discharge pipe from shrimp basin flows into ditch headed to ocean. Note dead plants in ditch coated with white accretion. 

“The nutrient levels in the immediate vicinity of the discharge into the receiving ocean waters are expected to be elevated from ambient conditions,” the e-mail from the CWB said. “However, the adjacent coastal ocean area is not expected to have any noticeable effect associated with the shrimp-farm discharge.”

“Water monitoring” which occurred while the shrimp farm was operating at full capacity prior to 2004 “indicated that the discharge from the facility did not affect the water quality of the ocean area,” nor did it impact any adjacent biological communities, the e-mail went on to say. In addition, Sunrise Capital will reportedly apply “numerous waste-minimization” efforts, according to the CWB.

And based upon the “company’s operating history which showed no evidence of negative environmental impact..,” officials at the CWB said they are supportive of the operation’s intent to dispose between 20 million and 30 million gallons of biological waste into the ocean. To review a copy of the NPDES application visit One may also acquire a copy at the Kaua‘i District DOH office located at 3040 ‘Umi St. in Lihu‘e.

Comments may be sent no later than April 10 to Clean Water Branch, Environmental Management Division, Department of Health, 919 Ala Moana Blvd., Room 301, Honolulu, Hawaii, 96814-4920. Objections and requests for a public hearing should also be sent to that address.

See also:
Ea O Ka Aina: Shrimp Effluent Permit 3/12/10
Island Breath: Kauai Shrimp to dump in ocean 8/21/06
Island Breath: Kauai's Crustacean Crisis 4/23/04 .

China - A Superbubble

SUBHEAD: China may seem to have defied the recession and the laws of economics. It hasn't. When China's bubble bursts, the global impact will be severe. Image above: Shanghai highrise housing boom continues. From ( By Vitaliy N. Katsenelson on 16 March 2010 in Christian Science Monitor - (

The world looks at China with envy. China’s economy grew 8.7 percent last year, while the world economy contracted by 2.2 percent. It seems that Chinese “Confucian capitalism” – a market economy powered by 1.3 billion people and guided by an authoritarian regime that can pull levers at will – is superior to our touchy-feely democracy and capitalism. But the grass on China’s side of the fence is not as green as it appears.

In fact, China’s defiance of the global recession is not a miracle – it’s a superbubble. When it deflates, it will spell big trouble for all of us.

To understand the Chinese economy, consider three distinct periods: “Late-stage growth obesity” (the decade prior to 2008); “You lie!” (the time of the financial crisis); and finally, “Steroids ’R’ Us” (from the end of the financial crisis to today).

Late-stage growth obesity

About a decade ago, the Chinese government chose a policy of growth at any cost. China’s leaders see strong gross domestic product (GDP) growth not just as bragging rights, but as essential for political survival and national stability.

Because China lacks the social safety net of the developed world, unemployed people aren’t just inconvenienced by the loss of their jobs, they starve; and hungry people don’t complain, they riot and cause political unrest.

Remember the 1994 movie “Speed”? A young cop (Keanu Reeves) had to save passengers on a bus that would explode if its speed dropped below 50 m.p.h. Well, China is like that bus with 1.3 billion people aboard. If the Communist Party can’t keep the economy growing at a fast clip, the result will be catastrophic.

To achieve high growth, China kept its currency, the renminbi, at artificially low levels against the dollar. This helped already cheap Chinese-made goods become even cheaper. China turned into a significant exporter to the developed economies.

Normally, if free-market economic forces were at work, the renminbi would have appreciated and the US dollar would have declined. However, had China let this occur, demand for its products would have declined, and its economy wouldn’t have grown at roughly 10 percent a year, which it did during the past decade.

The more China sold to the United States, the more dollars it accumulated, and thus the more US Treasuries it bought, driving our interest rates down. US consumers responded to these cheap goods and cheap home loans by going on a buying binge.

However, companies and countries that grow at very high rates for a long time will inevitably suffer from late-stage growth obesity. Consider Starbucks: In 1999, it had 2,000 stores and was adding 1.8 stores a day. In 2007, when it had 10,000 stores, it had to open 5.5 stores a day in a desperate bid to keep growth rates up. This resulted in poor decisions and poor quality – a recipe for disaster.

In China, political pressure for full employment has led to similar late-stage growth obesity. In 2005, China built the largest shopping mall in the world, the New South China Mall: Today it’s 99 percent vacant. China also built up a lavish district in a city called Ordos: Today, it’s a ghost town.

You lie!

All good things come to an end, and great things come to an end with a bang. When the financial meltdown erupted in 2008, US and global banks started dropping like flies. Countries everywhere suffered contraction.

Even China.

During the crisis, Chinese exports were down more than 25 percent, tonnage of goods shipped through railroads was down by double digits, and electricity use plummeted.

Yet Beijing insisted that China had magically sustained 6 to 8 percent growth.

China lies. It goes to great lengths to maintain appearances, including censoring media and jailing those who write antigovernment articles. That’s why we have to rely on hard data instead.

Steroids ‘R’ Us

Today the global economy is stabilizing, thanks to Uncle Sam and other “uncles” around the world. But the consumers of Chinese-made goods are still in debt, unemployment is high, and banks aren’t lending. You might think the Chinese economy would be growing at a lower rate. But no, it is growing again at nearly 10 percent, as though the financial crisis never occurred.

Though this growth appears to be authentic – electricity consumption is back up – it is not sustainable growth, because it is based on an unprecedented stimulus package and extraordinary government involvement in the economy.

In the midst of the financial crisis, in late 2008, Beijing fire-hosed a $568 billion stimulus into the Chinese economy. That’s enormous! As a percentage of GDP, it would be like a $2 trillion stimulus in America, nearly triple the size of the one Congress passed last year.

It gets even more interesting. Unlike Western democracies, whose central banks can pump a lot of money into the financial system but can’t force banks to lend or consumers and corporations to spend, China can achieve both at lightning speed.

The government controls the banks, so it can make them lend, and it can force state-owned enterprises (one-third of the economy) to borrow and to spend. Also, because the rule of law and human and property rights are still underdeveloped, China can spend infrastructure project money very fast – if a school is in the way of a road the government wants to build, it becomes a casualty for the greater good.

Government is horrible at allocating large amounts of capital, especially at the speed it is done in China. Political decisions (driven by the goal of full employment) are often uneconomical, and corruption and cronyism result in projects that destroy value.

To maintain high employment, China has poured money into infrastructure and real estate projects. This explains why, in 2009, new floor space doubled and residential real estate prices surged 25 percent. This also explains why the Chinese keep building new skyscrapers even though existing ones are still vacant.

The enormous stimulus has exacerbated problems that already existed, threatening to turn China into a less shiny but more drastic version of debt-riddled Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

What happens in China doesn’t stay in China. A meltdown there – or even a slowdown – would have severe consequences for the rest of the world.

It will tank the commodity markets. Demand for industrial goods will fall off the cliff. Finally, Chinese appetite for our fine currency will diminish, driving the dollar lower against the renminbi and boosting our interest rates higher. No more 5 percent mortgages and 6 percent car loans.

No shortcuts to greatness

We look at China and are mesmerized by its 1.3 billion people, its achievements of the past decade, its recent economic resiliency, and its ability to achieve spectacular results on the fly. But we have to remember that economic bubbles are usually just a good thing taken too far. The Chinese economy is no exception. Its long-term future may be bright, but in the short run we’ve got a bubble on our hands.

Everyone wants a shortcut to greatness, but there isn’t one. China has been trying to bend the laws of economics for a while, and with the control it exerts over its economy it may seem that it’s succeeded.

But this is only a temporary mirage, which must be followed by a painful reality. No, there is no shortcut to greatness – not in personal life, not in politics, and not in economics.


Festival of Life in The Cracks

SUBHEAD: How the immediacy of the urban neighborhood keeps on keepin’ on. Image above: An untitled painting in the series "Rustbelt Romanticism" by Mark A. Barill. From ( By Myra Eddy on 16 March 2010 in These New Old Traditions - (

Weeds growing up through the cracks in the pavement is a fractal assertion of life revealing itself through the cracks of civilization. My neighborhood is indicative of that, and this year’s Festival of Life in the Cracks (March 10) coincided with a meteorologically beautiful day, one of the first of spring’s blessings of warmth and sunshine.

On a typical working day, most “normal” neighborhoods are empty, their residents off working to pay for all the stuff in their fine homes. My neighborhood, on the other hand, is full of life. People are in the streets, walking and biking, wholly ignoring the hierarchy of vehicular traffic. My neighbors are out and about, getting stuff done and hanging out. I had the pleasure of washing and wringing my clothes outside in the bright sunlight and warm breezes, and hanging all on the clothesline to get that fresh earthy smell that cannot be extracted from a bottle. After my work was done, friends dropped by, hearty beers in hand, and we sat on the porch, talking, relaxing, spending time reinforcing the ties that bind our community together.

The blighted areas of Springfield, Illinois, are a microcosm of the ruins of cities like Detroit. The neglect and abandonment of our neighborhoods by those to whom we pay taxes is evident. And these feelings are reciprocated. What is the point of being a citizen in a city that doesn’t claim you? We are well aware that we have only each other to rely on. A tornado ripping through our city four years ago with its subsequent FEMA encounters made that obvious. If it were not for the good will of my friends and neighbors, who knows where I’d be; still waiting for FEMA assistance, maybe?

And yet, there is life everywhere. Nature is reclaiming the pavement, the falling down houses, and empty abandoned lots. The people who remain here are here for the long haul. Poor people are well aware of the economy of the community, even if most of my neighbors do not know what that term means; it flows freely from their hearts. When you have not money to purchase the assistance and care you need, you use the time you have to assist and care for others, and they reciprocate. It’s security that life in civilization cannot buy, especially now that we are in the horribly depressed phase of our bipolar economy.

A neighborhood filled with people on a traditional work day begs the question: how do these people get by? How do they pay their bills? It is increasingly challenging as the economy tanks, with middle class people lining up to take jobs that were formerly the sole purview of the poor—minimum wage service jobs. Many people here survive on government handouts, be it in the form of social security, disability, or welfare. Many people work nontraditional jobs (like metal recycling or giving plasma), have start-up companies in the black market (many people currently in prison were merely trying to make a buck and support their families), or live exceedingly frugal lives.

Last year, I made less than $2000 from my job, but I want for nothing. Most people here live in a similar fashion. We get by the best we can with what we have. Many live by the mantra of the depression-era grandparents who raised me: use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without. We are scavengers, opportunists, and we share the bounty. We are producers, not consumers. We create abundance by our ability to share what we have. It’s an odd thing, coming from the money economy, where scarcity is the model. There is only so much pie to share, and each person for themselves! The competition is fierce, and if you can’t compete, too bad, you die. In contrast, the economy of community is based on abundance. There is pie for everyone, and more pie can always be had because we had the forethought to plant orchards. The more we share, the more we each have and are willing to give.

We don’t each need a lawnmower; one will suffice for many families. Actually, we don’t need lawnmowers at all if we plant gardens to nourish ourselves and the entire community of life. Bioconcrete in the form of the American lawn is a delusion of idiocy; it makes no sense. One of the blessings of creating a new paradigm in the crumbling ruins of the old is the ability to throw out things that make no sense and replace them with things that do. Observation and feedback are excellent tools in paradigm building. Need generates its own power, and this is where our hope lies: we are what we want to become. There is nothing more adventurous and rewarding than real life.

The challenge is creating systems of living for ourselves, cultures and rituals that provide for our needs. It is quite difficult, being raised without an understanding of what a viable human culture could be like—being raised in a culture of not understanding. Our reality is constructed by our beliefs, reinforced by our rituals. Many people now believe that working, consuming, and dying is the way to go, and they reinforce this belief by their daily patterns of working and shopping. Somehow they’ve become slaves of a system that makes no sense, and is indeed, killing off the basis of life itself.

Waking up from this entrancement and becoming aware that options exist has given me opportunity and motivation in my own life. As hobo poet Vachel Lindsay remarked:

“I am further from slavery than most men.”

This has been an unexpected gift from downshifting (dropping out) from mainstream consumer culture and exploring what can variously be called simple living, “green,” do-it-yourself, urban homesteading, welfare and poverty, community, or even paradise. As Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted, we must expect the unexpected, or we’ll never find it.

The wealth we hold may not be obvious. Indeed, it takes an eye for beauty to see the wealth that abounds in my neighborhood. Our wealth lies not in consensus reality dollars, but in our collective security and abundance. We have each other, and we will always have each other. As governments fall short on cash and their enforcers (police, zoning, etc.) disappear, our freedom increases.

We use this freedom to create realities that make sense in light of the world we inhabit. We invite homeless people to squat the houses that are falling down from neglect. We scatter seeds of plants that nourish ourselves and the community of life in vacant lots and alley ways. We rediscover handy skills in the dumpster of history. We raise animals and build structures that do not fit into zoning’s view of safety, but that do fit into a paradigm of making sense. We raise our children with the knowledge that another life is possible, and provide them the tools they need to make a living in the economy of community.

“Disintegration and renewal are happening side by side—calamity and fertility, rot and splendor, grievous losses and surges of invigorating novelty. Yes, the death of the old order is proceeding apace, but it’s overlapped by the birth pangs of an as-yet-unimaginable new civilization.” —Rob Brezsny

There is life in the cracks, for which we are ever thankful. These pioneering plants and people are the seeds of a new paradigm, of what comes next. Life explodes into fecundity and abundance, emerging from the cracks with a fierceness beyond compare. It is a birthright our culture seems to have forgotten, but through the magic we create in our daily activities, we illuminate our culture’s collective blind spot. We discover the strength of ourselves in the love and care we share with each other. Who knew life could be such an adventure? Who knew life could be so sweet?


BloomEnergy Hype?

SUBHEAD: The BloomEnergy Box is extremely heavy and produces CO2 exhaust. Image above: Computer rendered perspective of a proposed nuclear energy plant from the Nuclear energy Institute ( By Stan Lenihan on 13 March 2010 in Yuma Sun - ( In response to the Editor's Notebook on March 7 about fuel cell innovations, some people think that the Bloom Energy company's claims are more hype than fact. One of the main problems is the weight of their fuel cells. These fuel cells average 200 pounds per kilowatt. For comparison, a 200-horsepower engine is equivalent to 149 kilowatts. That comes up to a power plant weight of about 29,828 pounds or about 15 tons. But, even if we only want the equivalent of a 2-horsepower gasoline generator, it would still weigh about 300 pounds. That's a pretty heavy "loaf of bread" sized fuel cell! The second problem is where do you get the fuel? Apparently, they are using a "reforming" process to get hydrogen from methane and use the hydrogen as fuel for their current fuel cell. That's good to get rid of the methane because it's 25 times as bad a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide and there are plenty of sources of methane, such as animal waste and arctic permafrost, which is melting at an alarming rate. However, the problem is that the methane molecule has one atom of carbon and 4 atoms of hydrogen. No matter how you hack it, that carbon atom has to eventually become a molecule of carbon dioxide. If you just burned the methane in a gas turbine, you can get about 50 percent efficiency compared to about 47 percent efficiency from the fuel cell! Let's say we just use hydrogen gas and get it by hydrolysis of water using electricity. That would be the only 100 percent environmentally friendly way to generate power with a fuel cell. We could get the electricity from a nuclear reactor, which is the only way to generate electricity without producing carbon dioxide. But, what the heck, (if you can live with nuclear energy) why not just use this electricity in an electric car and forget the fuel cell (BloomBox)? See also: Ea O Ka Aina: Bloom Energy Box 3/13/10 .

Jevons' Energy Use Paradox

SUBHEAD: We cannot address climate change or energy security unless we both create new sources of clean energy and reduce consumer demand. Image above: Exurbia development of Vintage Ranch in American Canyon, California. It doesn't pass ther "milk test". From ( By Greg Lindsay on 16 March 2010 in Fast Company - (

It's a given among Peak Oilers and New Urbanists alike that the imminent and permanent return of high oil prices will send convulsions through the suburban American landscape. It's one thing when professional Jeremiahs like James Howard Kunstler preach this to the converted week after week, but something else when the Urban Land Institute and Pricewaterhouse Coopers advise commercial real estate investors to:

"Shy away from fringe places in the exurbs and places with long car commutes or where getting a quart of milk takes a 15-minute drive."

Oil shocks will do what urban planners can't seem to and the government won't (through sharply higher gas taxes or putting a price on carbon): force people to live at greater densities.

In books like $20 Per Gallon and Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller - both published last year, in the wake of 2008's real estate bubble-burst - the end of cheap oil is presented as a good thing, a chance to press the reset button on civilization and live more locally and sustainably.

Kunstler goes further in 2005's "The Long Emergency" and in subsequent blog posts and novels, painting Peak Oil as a cleansing fire that will burn away exurban places like Pasco County, Florida. Last Wednesday, I drove for hours through the ground zero of Florida's foreclosure crisis, a scrolling landscape of strip malls, auto dealerships and billboards promising motorists that their stock market losses had been someone else's fault (and that you should sue them). The apocalypse would be a small price to pay for no more of this.

How else to explain the hostility directed at Amory Lovins by Kunstler and others? Lovins identified the hard and soft paths of fossil fuels versus conservation and renewables thirty-four years ago, and has since written books like "Winning the Oil Endgame" and "Small is Beautiful", in which he called for a massively distributed, solar-powered "microgrid."

But Lovins earned ridicule for his still-unrealized vision of a "hypercar" made of composites and electric drive trains three-to-five times more efficient than existing models. The hypercar, Kunstler wrote, "Would have only promoted the unhelpful idea that Americans can continue to lead urban lives in the rural setting." (To add insult to injury, Lovins' Rocky Mountain Institute is accessible only by car.)

Why unhelpful? In a phrase: Jevons' Paradox.

Nearly a century before the geologist M. King Hubbert began calculating Peak Oil, the economist William Stanley Jevons discovered, to his horror, Peak Coal. In "The Coal Question", published in 1865, Jevons raised the questions which haunt sustainability advocates to this day:

"Are we wise in allowing the commerce of this country to rise beyond the point at which we can long maintain it?"

He estimated Britain's coal production would reach a peak in less than a hundred years, with calamitous economic and Malthusian consequences. The engine of coal's demise would be the same invention that was created to conserve it: the steam engine. But it made burning coal so efficient, that instead of conserving coal, it drove the price down until everyone was burning it. This is Jevons' Paradox: the more efficiently you use a resource, the more of it you will use. Put another way: the better the machine--or fuel--the broader its adoption.

A corollary is the Piggy Principle: instead of saving the energy conserved through efficiency, we find new ways to spend it, leading to greater consumption than before. No wonder Kunstler is alarmed that a hyper-efficient hypercar would lead to hyper-sprawl--it's only been the pattern throughout all of human history.

Maybe the worst thing that could happen to New Urbanism would be an incredibly efficient new car (or fuel) that allows Americans (and, increasingly, the Chinese) to carry on as before, as an oil glut allowed us to do between 1979 and 2001. Crisis is on their side.

Jevons' peak coal reckoning was postponed by a new fuel source discovered a few years earlier in the Pennsylvania hills: oil. Today, there is another liquid fuel source on the horizon, provided it can scale: next-generation biofuels.

Peak Oilers take it as an article of faith that biofuels won't work (and for now they have both physics and economics in their corner). But reading books like the ones mentioned above (or watching films like "The End of Suburbia" and "Collapse") one gets the feeling they're actively rooting against them as well. "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste," Paul Romer once said. Especially if you waste one by solving it and forgetting it ever happened.

Energy, transportation and urbanism are inextricably entwined, but as far as I can tell, no one has asked the founders of biofuel startups what kind of world they envision if they succeed. The assumption is more of the same. Only more of it. Last Thursday, I was in Washington D.C. for a briefing sponsored by the Biotech Industry Organization (a lobbying group) to update lawmakers on their progress. Executives from Solazyme, Algenol, HP Biopetroleum, Gevo, and Coskata took turns explaining how sunlight/sugars/miscanthus/waste products would be converted by algae/microorganisms/yeast into oil/ethanol/isobutanol. Each laid out plans to leave the lab behind and begin scaling up production to millions of gallons per year.

The urban consequences of a potentially endless, cheap(er), greener source of liquid fuel weren't on the agenda that morning, but I did bring it up at breakfast with Jonathan Wolfson, the CEO and co-founder of Solazyme. His company hopes to produce oil using algae (albeit by brewing it in fermenters instead of growing it in ponds). Solazyme touts resulting biodiesel is the only one of its kind that can be poured into a diesel gas tank unblended.

Peak Oil's big crunch "isn't creative destruction," he said. "It's destruction destruction." Sketching two circles on his place setting, one large and one small, he explained the large represented the roughly 150 billion gallons of gasoline Americans consumed last year, and the small one 50 billion gallons of diesel. His goal wasn't to produce or replace gasoline, he said. Electric cars would do that--ideally electric-biodiesel hybrids.

He was unfamiliar with Jevons' Paradox, but grasped the dilemma immediately.

"Whether it's because of that, or whether it's because the world is projected to grow to 9 billion people by 2050, one way or another you have the same end problem, which is that we need more moving forward, not less. We need more energy, and we need more food, not less of either."
He hoped algal oils would offer a solution to both. Solazyme has already begun selling algae-based nutritional supplements, and announced last week that it's working with Unilever to explore replacing petrochemicals in its soaps.

"I'm very receptive to urban planning," he continued. "I live in San Francisco, and I live in a place where I can walk to the market and walk to a movie, and I don't need to drive around the city and very often I don't. What I'm not receptive to is when you take that argument to the Luddite level. There's no really important technology that's been developed that couldn't be used in a negative way. But that's not a valid argument against new technology.

Biofuels can either be very good or very bad, depending on where your biomass comes from, but they're like everything else. When you say 'Okay, because of the worst case, we don't want this technology. So we don't want to look at alternatives to liquid petroleum, because we know petroleum is going to run out, and what we really believe is that everyone should be walking anyway.' Well guess what? That's just not realistic."

Two days earlier, Accenture published a survey of 9,000 individuals in 22 countries about their attitudes on energy: 90% were concerned by rising energy costs, and 76% by the prospect of shortages; 83% were concerned by climate change, and 89% thought it was important to reduce their country's reliance on fossil fuels. But barely a third thought they should do so by using less energy; the remainder believed their governments should find new sources, as soon as possible.

"We cannot address climate change or energy security unless we both create new sources of clean energy and reduce consumer demand," said the report's primary author. "But our survey shows that consumers do not think lower energy use is a priority."